Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman have canceled their participation in the Saban Forum in Washington early next month. Government sources said they canceled at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not want them speaking at the planned session on Iran's nuclear program.
But that didn't stop Barak from giving an interview to the American television station PBS in which he spoke extensively about the Iranian issue. Inter alia, he told interviewer Charlie Rose that if he were Iran's leader, he, too, would want to develop nuclear weapons capability.
The Saban Forum on U.S.-Israel relations always draws senior government officials from both countries. This year, Washington is sending Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while Jerusalem had planned to send Barak and Lieberman.
Both Israeli ministers had planned to speak at the session on Iran's nuclear program. But a few days ago, the Prime Minister's Bureau told them that Netanyahu didn't want his senior ministers talking about Iran's nuclear program at this time, as Israel wants to keep a low profile on the issue right now so as not to undermine international efforts to impose new sanctions on Tehran.
Nevertheless, some sources speculated that the real reason Netanyahu asked them to cancel was that he wanted to avoid a public confrontation at the conference between the ministers and two former top defense officials who vehemently oppose military action against Iran - former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
Barak's office confirmed that he has canceled his appearance at the forum but said this was solely due to a scheduling conflict. Lieberman's office had not responded to Haaretz's query as of press time.
In his interview with Charlie Rose, Barak said he was under no illusions that Iran wanted nuclear weapons only because of Israel. It's a proud nation with a 4,000-year history, he said, and it sees that everyone around it has nukes: India, Pakistan, Russia, China and, reportedly, Israel.
Nevertheless, he said, the Middle East would be a completely different place with a nuclear Iran, and given Iran's role as a sponsor of global terror, this isn't something the world can tolerate: It would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, possibly including the acquisition of nukes by governments headed by Islamic extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood, and would allow Iran to take over neighbors such as Bahrain or Qatar without the world being able to do anything to stop it.
Barak said he believes sanctions on Iran could work if the international community united behind truly paralyzing measures. However, he added, he is under no illusion that this will actually happen, given the opposition from China, Russia and others.
Asked whether a military operation could really stop Iran's nuclear program, he evaded the question, saying merely that people are thinking about this issue in many capitals worldwide, and that when leaders say all options are on the table, he assumes this includes military action.
Barak also discussed the Palestinian issue at some length, inter alia thanking the Obama administration for its massive diplomatic effort to block the Palestinians' bid for UN recognition as a state.
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